Ask anyone on the street how they define public art and they will inevitably refer to it as a sculpture in a park or on the street. That’s been the definition of public art for quite some time.
In 1991, artist, educator and activist, Suzanne Lacy, proposed the term new genre public art to define work that engages the public but may not in fact end with a sculpture. She first coined the term in a public performance at the San Francisco Museum of Art and later in her book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. She defined it as art for activism, often created outside the typical art institution, and which the process had the artist engage directly with the public or audience in discussing and creating action around social and political issues. In her own words, new genre public art is “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism.” (1)
Emerging out to the 1990s were these alternative definitions for public art such as contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogic art, community-based art, activist art, and the comprehensive new genre public art. Artists began moving from the art institutions into the realm of civic activism. Instead of reflecting social or political issues through metaphors in public art, new genre public art aimed to engage the regular citizen, specifically those from marginalized groups, in creating solutions for these issues.
Examples of this can be seen in the work of Mark Dion and his Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. Dion, who believes that art and ecology can be fruitful partners in creating solutions for environmental conservation, along with a group of youth from two schools in Chicago, traveled to Belize to learn about the conservation initiatives the country was implementing. They then returned to Chicago and researched the work of different art and ecological initiatives in the area and how the issues of the Belize tropical ecosystem parallel to those of their own environment. This culminated in establishing an experimental field station that would be the site for future art/ecology experiments, guest speakers and future activities. It also acted as the base of operations for weekly community clean-up and restoration projects. (2)
One of Suzanne Lacy’s works, Silver Action, brings women from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds to discuss the role that women played in political protests of our time. It explored issues that were relevant in British media at the time around aging. Workshops were held with women who participated in the miner’s strikes, disability, ecology and feminist movements. Four hundred women then participated in a five-hour performance split into three tableaux. Each hour one hundred women were seen conversing at small tables. (3)
New genre public art challenges the idea of commissioned public art. Does public art have to be sculptural when in fact the work is for the public? It also challenges the relationship between the viewer to the art piece. Is the relationship the viewer is having withe art the only relationship? And, finally, it challenges the possibility of perspectives. Is the art work suppose to mean only one thing — that which the artist intended it to be. Ultimately, new genre public art aims to engage the public in the creation of an art work that does not necessarily end with a sculptural or typically visual aesthetic and instead engage the public in bringing about change through art.
Knight, Cher Krause (2008). Public Art: theory, practice and populism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-5559-5.
This week I participated in a Scavanger Hunt. Although, this wasn't your typical scavanger hunt where you are given a list of items you must go collect or take pics of with your phone. Instead, this scavanger hunt, organized by Mudfoot Theatre artists Geneviève Paré and Ian McFarlane, had us picking up trash along Calgary's Bow River. Not only were we cleaning up the banks of Bow River but we were also keeping an eye out for interesting objects; objects that could potentially be used to make puppets. Puppets? Yes, puppets!
"Mudfoot Theatre is a Calgary-based theatre company committed to devising contemporary folk narratives through humble magic. [They] are an independent company under the artistic direction of Ian McFarlane and Geneviève Paré. With [their] feet in the mud and [their] head in the clouds [they] work collaboratively with interdisciplinary artists to reinvigorate the Canadian Ethos through the performing arts
Their upcoming project is called "River", an interdisciplinary puppet theatre production, which seeks to charge a new level of meaning and connection with the Bow River. Through puppetry and live music, Mudfoot Theatre is adventuring to tell a bold and intimate story informed by the historical, environmental and mythical significance of the Bow River.
Although these artist are ultimatly producing a theatre show the run up to the creation of this project included this community clean up as a way to not only clean up the trash and find interesting objects to create work out of, but to also engage the public with the Bow River.
"The Bow River is a critical lifeline for the province, providing us with clean drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, hydroelectric power and habitat for wildlife. It can be both beautiful and treacherous. It is a symbol of home for many southern Albertans, and in the wake of the 2013 flood, this community holds even greater reverence to the destructive and also unifying power of the Bow River."
For more information on Mudfoot Theatre please go to their website http://www.mudfoottheatre.com
RIVER: A Puppet Myth
A Collective Creation with Ian McFarlane, Geneviève Paré, Lindsey Zess-Funk, Jesse Plessis, Jesse McMann-Sparvier, Lane Shordee, Ali DeRegt.
Premiers June 7-11, 2016 at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre in Calgary, Alberta.